Melodious Mirth 9

My mini-history of comedy music is coming to an end.

That’s not because I’ve run out of material – on the contrary, I’ve never produced so many draft posts, each with a musical comedy gem waiting for me to add some words of introduction. I just think it’s time to wind things up.

My previous post took a turn towards a harder edge of humour with satirical sideswipes at the Vietnam War (Country Joe MacDonald) and Cult Religion (Frank Zappa), so how about keeping the satire sizzling with this splendid spoof from Down Under that kicked new life into the semi-comatose novelty-song genre?

It’s also, by my standards, bang up-to-date – well, more recent than most of what I listen to! – which may improve my somewhat shabby street-cred and help me get down with the kids and stuff. So for now I’ll leave Chas & Dave and The Two Ronnies, not to mention The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band … [You just did! Ed.] … though of course I’m always open to reader requests … [So much for street-cred! Get on with it! Ed.]

Yeah, right, don’t want to alienate the younger element … future of blogging and all that … so it’s over to “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo” for something or other hot and happening from where it’s at … [Where’s that? Ed.]

 

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Melodious Mirth 8

Post 8 already?

The previous 7 have, for the most part, featured jolly music – cheery tunes you could whistle when your mum asks you what you’ve been up to – although the lyrics may sometimes be darker than a jaunty melody might lead you to expect. A good example of this is Tom Lehrer’s So Long Mom in ‘Melodious Mirth 4’ where the meaning is deliberately at odds with an upbeat air.

Such mismatches can make satire sharper. They add bite when the satirical targets are war and the gung-ho public attitudes that can, all too easily, lead us into it. Country Joe MacDonald set his acerbic song I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die to the upbeat tune of Louis Armstrong’s Tiger Rag. The film of his 1969 Woodstock appearance provides powerful and moving evidence that he’d read the zeitgeist right.

Er, have I posted this clip before? Never mind, here it is again, just in case anybody reading this hasn’t seen it. And who knows, some of you who have seen it might fancy another look.

Me, well, 50 years on and I’m not tired of it yet ….

Flash forward five years and we find Frank Zappa taking aim at self-styled spiritual teachers who used bogus ‘healing’ methods to defraud gullible and often vulnerable people. But his contempt is for con-artist and con-victim alike. The persona he adopts is the guy who sees through all the hocus-pocus.

Zappa always satirised without fear or favour – hypocrisy and stupidity were his targets, no matter who you were. Nothing seemed to escape that eagle-eye, whether right-wing bigotry or fuzzy ‘New Age’ thinking. An outspoken critic of mainstream education and organised religion, he was a passionate advocate for freedom of speech, self-education, political participation and the abolition of censorship.

But humour is always his weapon, deployed here in the range of voices that he adopts – including a prototype rap-style delivery – and the clever match between a chaotic subject-matter and a musical arrangement that sometimes appears on the verge of collapse – though, of course, it never does!

It’s a bit like discovering a circus for grown-ups … with a decent band, for a change!

Melodious Mirth 7

The Barron Knights are a British humorous pop-rock group, originally formed in 1959 as the Knights of the Round Table.

They started out as a straight pop group and spent a couple of years touring and playing in English dance halls. Bill Wyman, later of the Rolling Stones, has written that the Barron Knights were the first group he saw with an electric bass, at a performance in 1961, inspiring him to take up the instrument. In 1963, at the invitation of Brian Epstein,  they were one of the support acts on the Beatles’ Christmas shows in London and later became one of the few acts to tour with both the Beatles and the Stones.

They first came to fame in 1964 with the number “Call Up the Groups” (Parts 1 and 2). It overcame copyright restrictions to parody a number of the leading pop groups of the time including the Searchers, the Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Dave Clark Five, the Bachelors, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

The Barron Knights have continued to tour over the years and indeed perform to this day, with some personnel changes, having the occasional hit record along the way and earning from their fellow-musicians an admiring nickname – The Guv’nors. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but having the micky taken out of you could be better proof that you’ve really arrived!

Would current performers relish being sent up like that, I wonder? And with such a homogenous product, would anyone actually bother to try?

Nowadays the scene is awash with tribute bands and their word-for-word/note-for-note imitations – enslaved to the originals and forbidden to go beyond their frozen example. Flies in aspic, you might say, stuck fast in a heritage model …

OK, rant over! Oh, perhaps it’s just that old people have all the money and are choosing to spend it on the past. Old people? Hey, that’s me! And where am I up to in this not-so-little survey? 1964!

Aspic, or what?

Steady on, I am looking at the real thing and not a bunch of clones … or puppets … aren’t I? I mean, sure, this has it’s cheesy moments … all those Xmassy references … and any satire is pretty soft. Frank Zappa it ain’t.

Mind you, it soon will be! How could I cover musical comedy and miss out the Mothers?

And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado I give you – THE BARRON KNIGHTS!

 

Melodious Mirth 6

Well, I don’t need Wikipedia – did I just say that out loud? – to help me introduce this next genius of musical comedy.

But let me go back to the beginning. My cultural education began one day in the late 1950s when the family bought a smart new Grundig reel-to-reel tape-recorder.

For starters, this opened up a whole new world of creative opportunity – recording daft improvised conversations and roughly-scripted ‘comedy’ sketches, singing like the Chipmunks (using that handy 3-speed function knob!) or sometimes surreptitiously leaving the machine on when my parents were arguing about everything or nothing in the vain hope of shaming them into silence.

But the big thrill was being able to record stuff off the radio and play it back whenever you wanted.

Those were the dog days between Elvis and the Beatles when some of the best things on the air were novelty songs. And nobody performed a novelty song better than Bernard Cribbins.

Quite apart from his comfortable and completely natural singing voice, he brought a wealth of other talents and experiences to the job. Now 90 years old he has been an English character actor, comedy actor, voice-over artist and musical comedian with a career spanning over seventy years. Who could forget his hilarious portrayal of a loud, fussy and pretentious guest in the Hotel Inspectors episode of Fawlty Towers?

Image result for bernard cribbins fawlty towers

Two of his songs, presented below, were particular family favourites. In lieu of live footage – he was very much a studio man – these recordings are accompanied by charming amateur animations.

And if they fail to charm, well, you can always close your eyes and imagine. After all, you are in the hands of a master storyteller …

 

Melodious Mirth 5

It all started when comedian Allan Sherman received letters of complaint from his son Robert while the boy was attending Camp Champlain, a summer camp in Westport, New York.

Did Daddy rescue his poor child? Or did he tell the little chap to man up and pipe down?  Good old Wikipedia is silent about all of that, alas, though it does tell me that Allan and Lou Busch turned Robert’s ordeal into a song which went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 list for three weeks beginning on August 24, 1963. The song is a parody that complains about the fictional “Camp Granada” and is set to the tune of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. It became an international hit and seems to have struck a particular chord in Scandinavia with versions in Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish.

The Finnish version is included in the Finnish Boy Scouts’ songbook so must have been quite respectable. But the Swedish version notably doesn’t revolve around the camper hating the camp but is about the kids running roughshod over it and chasing away all the counsellors, one of whom has committed suicide after they let a snake into the mess hall. The organizer of the camp is arrested by police after the kids start a forest fire. The song begins with the boy writing the letter to ask his parents for more cash, because he has lost all his pocket-money playing dice with the other campers. It ends with the boy having to wrap up his letter as he is about to join the others in burning down the neighbouring camp lodge.

Kids, huh?

But you know what? I reckon you can’t beat the original, with Allan capturing to perfection what it’s like to be a kid away from home. Try to watch this without smiling. You’d stand a better chance of eating a sugary doughnut without licking your lips …

 

Melodious Mirth 4

No round-up of rib-tickling rhythms would be replete without that swinging sultan of singing satire – and avid aficionado of amusing alliteration, along with much wickedly-waspish wordplay – deep breath, big drum-roll! – Tom Lehrer. 

The wonderful Wikipedia [Enough already! Ed.] describes him as a retired American musician, singer-songwriter, satirist and mathematician. In the early 1970s, Lehrer  largely retired from public performances to devote his time to teaching mathematics and music theatre at the University of California. He’s best known for the pithy and  humorous songs that he recorded in the 1950s and 1960s which often parodied popular musical forms, though he usually created original melodies when doing so.

Lehrer’s early work typically dealt with non-topical subject matter and was noted for its black humour in songs such as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. In the 1960s, he produced a number of songs that dealt with social and political issues of the day. The popularity of these songs has endured their topical subjects and references. Lehrer quoted a friend’s explanation: “Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.”

The Cold War may be over but, perhaps sadly, the song I’ve chosen still has bite today. His elegant, laid-back style has hardly dated and that innocent insouciance – and jaunty piano – somehow subtly subvert the seriousness of the subject-matter. A short, sharp shock … [He’s at it again! You’re fired! Ed.]

 

Melodious Mirth 3

My mini-outbreak of musical mayhem continues with Spike Jones’s transatlantic legacy – one Terence Alan Patrick Sean Milligan who, disliking his first name, began to call himself Spike after hearing the City Slickers on Radio Luxemburg.

Further unacknowledged Wikipedia borrowings below, folks!

The “Ying Tong Song” (also known by its refrain, which is variously either “Ying Tong Diddle I Po”  or “Ying Tong Yiddle I Po” rather than the oft-quoted but apparently absent “Ying Tong Iddle I Po”) was a novelty song performed by the Goons, usually led by Harry Secombe. Spike claimed he wrote the song as a bet with his brother that he could not get a song into the hit parade that had only two chords (in this case G and D7).

It is a nonsense song, consisting of small verses interspersed by a completely nonsensical chorus. The origin of the title is said to have come from Harry Secombe’s mispronunciation of the name of Milligan’s war-time friend and fellow jazz musician, Harry Edgington. When Secombe repeatedly called him “Edgerton”, Milligan replied, “it’s Edgington, Edgington” and emphasized the point by saying “Yington, Yington” Elsewhere, Milligan mentions that Edgington was often referred to as Edge-Ying-Tong.

Secombe spoke the lead vocals, accompanied by Spike and Peter Sellers who sang along  as various Goon show characters – Bluebottle and Major Bloodnok, to name but two.  Secombe had a glorious tenor voice but, as he was signed to Philips Records, did not sing on any of the Goons’ Decca recordings of the 1950s – including this song – only speaking his words. Their producer was one George Martin, whose work with the Goons was a massive attraction to the Beatles when they came to sign with him in 1962 …

Ah, these wheels within wheels of time! It’s hard to describe why all of this makes me feel so happy, though I suspect such feelings are shared by many other Brits of my generation. We grew up listening to this stuff, lying on the floor beside our Dansette record players and flipping the 45s – or were they 78s? – over and over. As I recall, the other side was “Bloodnok’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Call” with special guest appearance from the Major’s ‘childhood sweetheart, spotty Minnie Bannister’ …

Warning: if you play these songs back-to-back, you may require medical assistance!